We can carry all the blood in the world and still be ourselves, we don’t disappear. — Abbey Lincoln
There’s an exclusive tribe of singing souls marked by inevitability, and I love them. Against their suspicions of fame and fortune, these souls are thrust into the spotlight to deliver messages that only they can, in tones only they possess. Abbey Lincoln belongs to this tribe and no amount of trouble or distraction could uproot her from her destiny, to deliver the screams and wails and warning others withhold and muffle. She arrived as a hero in a world of cowards, and remained so earnest it almost seemed deceitful. Even her moments of tonal sweetness cut like daggers because they come from her ability to play with and placate trouble until its tone shifts to jubilation. How can so much energizing, childlike glee survive in a black woman in the west, and in lockstep with devastatingly stoic intensity, how can Abbey be so many people and herself?
Abbey’s style has a way of grabbing your hand and skipping you down a lane you didn’t intend to follow. She lights that lane with her enthusiasm as she goes, so that each step is shadowed by a suspenseful what if— what if her light can’t reach the path in time and she leads you into darkness or danger, or what if it’s so optimistic on that path, it’s oppressive? What if the fantasy she instills is so good you cannot snap out of it, and find yourself wobbling in a near-constant daydream narrated by her conversational singing? Love for Sale she quivers, interrupting your neurotic doubt like a stable but jilted wife somewhere between offering herself and retracting her guidance. The phrase comes together by diverging and projects longing onto us. Love is meant to be a yoking, to sell it is to break it and undermine its power to unite. The dissonance of the title and opening line inspires the lamenting energy of the song. It’s the jazz standard equivalent of someone calling you and asking you what you want when you answer. You called me you mean to retort with exasperation, but the trick works because it’s so desperate, it’s charming and distracts you from its manipulations. Love for Sale, whether you asked for it or not, who could resist this transactional access to the best feeling in the world.
Abbey records her version of this standard in New York in 1960, with then-husband, bebop drummer Max Roach, saxophonist Clifford Jordan, bassist Eddie Kahn, and Coleridge Perkinson on piano. Every jazz vocalist has her version of this Cole Porter classic, but Abbey’s 1960 version is the most compelling among them, her voice tells the unabridged story of this depraved approach to romance without flinching. She’s so effective because she sings and acts simultaneously; she makes even the most overwrought standards as cinematic and regenerative as they are. For Abbey Lincoln songs are also scenes, lifetimes being revisited, reenacted, and transmuted. She adds flesh and texture to the word love, snaps it out like the answer to a trivia question, and she applies dejection to the element of the song that has her auctioning herself off with a sales pitch, where other singers make the same lyric cheerful and exuberant.
Appetizing young love for sale… who will buy, who would like to sample my supply? The lyrics make love a narcotic and the saleswoman a pusher, and Abbey manages to use pace and pitch to capture the hubris of that fraught arrangement. There were rumors that Max Roach dabbled in pimping. Often for jazzmen this meant wealthy white women fanatics would give them money to be taken out, or even just seen with them. Without even trying, men like Max Roach and Miles Davis and Duke Ellington could be called pimps and pushers by a media that refused to admit it was pimping their images for the scandal of any scene that involved mixing of the so-called races. Abbey does not fuel her husband’s reputation by approaching her lines like a victim of her man’s potential infidelity, she delivers each phrase with the ennui of a diva who has been with every kind of suitor, from the fiercely loyal to the player, and cannot shake the monotonous mechanics of going from man to man and flexing her desirability even as it holds her captive and bores her.
Abbey talks us through her love sale slowly and methodically. When she comes to the idea of the thrill of love, she halts and heaves the words like a burden across sparse piano chords tiptoeing just behind her. Then Max drops a frenzied beat as she calls for true love, claiming his slot, and Abbey quickens with him. They fall in sync like only lovers can and we realize his rhythm is both guided by her and watching her, claiming her with its boundaries, celebrating her with its reach. Abbey talks us off the ledge of mediocre love, and then back onto the ledge of real love with her and Max. This recording comes the same year as their famed Freedom Now! Suite is released, and it does seem like they are unified and deliberate in trying to dispel the notion that they can only master protest music, or that they are strictly militant. Abbey is a militant woman, outspoken and free spirited, but from a place of tradition and intimacy.
A poem she wrote for her father reveals her love of self-reliance and a classic masculinity: my father built his houses, and kept his folks inside, his images were stolen, his beauty was denied. She resents the society that forced him to struggle to self-actualize, but champions the man who managed to do so anyways. Abbey’s stance on men and love tends toward unabashed curiosity and boldness. She was eager to learn from the men in her life. She studied them, and was even a bit of a tomboy. Her father taught her how to trust her hands, which she painted with in her spare time. Max taught me how to scream. She once proclaimed, and the double entendre cannot be lost. She was screaming on and off stage— in performance, in terror, in rapture, in satisfaction. It tore up her voice, she later confessed, in a tone that suggests it might have been worth it, or that the damage somehow enhanced her skill and depth. Thelonious Monk taught her her value. She wrote a song to one of his compositions Blue Monk and didn’t tell him. He called her out and gave her license, telling her he liked her lyrics and she didn’t need to hide behind any coy admiration with him. Abbey was so physically and spiritually beautiful it sometimes made her act bashful and inadequate to compensate for her natural glamor, because there was no way for her to hide that beauty. She behaved as if she might not be taken seriously because she was so objectified for her looks, and sometimes she was right— too beautiful to be so real.
This only made her more and more honest and self-assured over time. As with “Love for Sale” so with Abbey’s personal telos, from longing to be noticed and treasured for her talent at almost any cost, to demanding independence and respect. I met my art before I met any man, she says in an interview with Gil Nobel years after divorcing Max, her love no longer for sale. Healing from the need for validation can be a painful process and many never embark upon it for fear that it will leave them with nothing to sell or sell out. Abbey outran the barcodes without ever becoming stale or predictable, because she was never trying to sell us anything with a pretty song in the first place. She was having conversations with us through music, sorting it out alongside us. She did not gloss over the tension in songs to get to some fairy tale crescendo, instead she let them fizzle and dissipate with no resolution or happy ending, like a good film, where the last scene is still in the middle and you’re not told how to feel about the plot and plot is not going to soothe or lull you into a stupor where the characters live happily ever after and you never have to worry about them again.
You have to be concerned about Abbey because she’s testifying and asking us to care with her and for her in order to receive her company. Abbey addresses us directly when she sings, sometimes with an s.o.s. We can’t just pretend her story ends with the tidy final verse, a drum roll, and a doting collaborative husband. She’s still being sold as a sex symbol against her will, she’s still refusing rescue, she’s still gonna lose her man to her distracting beauty and feistiness and how inevitable her rise to fame is, and how nervous it makes him and her, both. Abbey is modest and undersold, Abbey is not for sale. She embodies love so well people around her forget she needs it too. Her modesty becomes the ache in the sound when she tells us what she’s been through, and the triumph in it when she giggles at the past as if it’s part farce, part fiction.
One thing most great music has in common, no matter the genre, is that listening to it is interactive and forces you to participate in its world. No vampires allowed. Abbey Lincoln takes it a little farther by singing so frankly that it’s confrontational. She hands us material and demands that we build and imagine the world of each song with her. Lately there’s jargon circulating about healing the ‘inner child’ as a means of becoming oneself. People are obsessed with hacking their way to wholeness and inner peace in this age of fragments. Most people can’t even access the spirit of that inner child, however, it’s trapped behind masks and acts. And then you hear Abbey Lincoln sing old love, new love, every love but true love… and innocence is strength again, the pimps are husbands, the starlets are geniuses, the adagio swings, and your willingness to remain more curious than jaded is busy saving and refusing to sell your soul.